The title of this article indicates a change in scholarly consensus from earlier in this century. Why Judaisms and not Judaism? It has become clear that in the first century CE Judaism was not monolithic but highly variegated throughout the Greco‐Roman world, and diverse and complex even within the borders of Roman Palestine. No longer valid is George Foot Moore's characterization of “normative Judaism,” by which he meant that Pharisaic‐Rabbinic Judaism was the dominant and legitimate expression, against which all other Judaisms were judged to be aberrations or variants. Instead, the picture that has emerged is of multiple Judaisms, distinct Jewish religious systems, yet with connecting threads, indicators that they share a common legacy. Another characterization to be rejected is “late Judaism.” This turn of the century terminology was used to brand Judaism in the Greco‐Roman period as a legalistic degeneration of earlier prophetic religion, moving toward the end of Judaism with its lack of acceptance of Jesus as the Messiah. Scholars today recognize that the Judaisms of the first century are early and not late, that they are much more at the beginning than at the end. Yet another contrast that has been laid aside is that of Palestinian versus Hellenistic Judaism; this is an artificial opposition which reduces an enormously complex picture into a simplistic one. Hellenization and its attendant issues were not confined to the Diaspora (see Dispersion). Still, while the overlap between the Judaisms inside and outside of Palestine is significant, one should not deny the distinctive features of Diaspora Judaism, many of which were an outgrowth of two issues: the great distance between the Jerusalem Temple and most Diaspora Jews, and the fact that Diaspora Judaism was a minority religion in a heavily hellenized and polytheistic setting. In short, it is difficult to compose a coherent picture of the Judaisms of this time because of the very diversity, complexity, and dynamic character which lead us to speak of Judaisms rather than Judaism, and also because of the nature of the sources.


The primary literary sources for the Judaisms of the first century provide only a limited picture. Those preserved are those which were important to the victors of history. From the Jewish perspective this is rabbinic literature (which dates from the third century CE on, though it may preserve earlier traditions), the foundational literature of what is known as Orthodox Judaism. It gradually came to regard itself as the heir to Pharisaic Judaism, and therefore either ignored or was hostile to other varieties of Judaism in the first century. From a Christian perspective, there is mid‐first to second century evidence in the New Testament and other early Christian writings. These view first century Judaisms through the lenses of various Christian communities struggling to establish identities independent of the Judaism out of which they are emerging or with which they are competing, often polemically. Additional sources include two first‐century Jewish figures, the historian Flavius Josephus and the philosopher Philo of Alexandria, the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Jewish literature written between the Bible and the Mishnah and preserved in the apocrypha and in the pseudepigrapha, and archeological and inscriptional evidence. Each source has its own problems of interpretation, and there are major gaps, such as data concerning women. Nevertheless, there is a wealth and variety of sources for the Judaisms of the first century which reflect diverse socioeconomic perspectives. Ironically, it is the very diversity of these perspectives which often limits historical reconstructions, because of their disagreements with one another and the gaping holes that they leave in their wake.


Of the named Judaisms of the first century, the best known are the Pharisees, attested in Josephus, the New Testament, and rabbinic literature. The evidence reveals nothing of the internal organization of this group—their criteria for membership, leadership structure, or educational system. Only two known individuals claim that they were themselves Pharisees: Josephus and Paul. There are reasons to question Josephus's claim that at the age of nineteen he became a Pharisee, and certainly many of his writings do not seem to be those of a Pharisee or someone who is more than neutral toward the Pharisees. Still, his later writings show a change of attitude and could support a later Pharisaic affiliation. Paul wrote from the perspective of one who had left Pharisaic Judaism. Josephus's and Paul's claims to be Pharisees open up the possibility that Pharisaic Judaism was found not only in Roman Palestine, but in the Diaspora, possibly as a way of responding to the wider world of Greco‐Roman culture with a consciously Jewish way of life.

Josephus mentions the Pharisees fewer than twenty times, and the portrait that emerges is of a relatively small group (six thousand at the time of Herod the Great, Ant. 17.2.42) that for most of the first century played a minor role in Jewish society. They are portrayed as one of three philosophical schools of thought, alongside the Sadducees and Essenes, but seem to have been primarily a political interest group. Lacking their own political power, the Pharisees sought influence with the ruling class to achieve their goals for Jewish society, especially during the latter part of Hasmonean rule, and at various other times up through the beginning of the revolt against Rome in 66 CE. Josephus's selective description of Pharisaic beliefs—they believe in fate, free will, and God, that the soul is imperishable and that the souls of the wicked will be punished—reflects the interests of his Greco‐Roman audience. A hint of the Pharisees' overall goals is that they had a reputation for interpreting traditional laws not recorded in the books of Moses; unfortunately Josephus does not elaborate.

Other clues concerning the Pharisees' goals for a renewed Judaism and their own internal rules come from the Gospels and rabbinic Judaism. The depiction of the Pharisees in the Gospels as the opponents of Jesus focuses the contention between Jesus and the Pharisees around issues of fasting and tithing, purity, and Sabbath observance, issues that overlap with the agenda of early rabbinic law. Further, the early rabbinic evidence for the Pharisees presents them as applying their own tradition of priestly piety to everyday life and business. According to Anthony Saldarini, “the Pharisees drew on an old tradition of using priestly laws concerning purity, food, and marriage in order to separate, protect, and identify Judaism” (“Pharisees,” Anchor Bible Dictionary). Without denying that the rabbi are the ideological descendants of the Pharisees, the precise relationship between the Pharisees and the early rabbis who came after them is problematic, and there are considerable differences between the rabbis and the Pharisees. Apparently Pharisaic Judaism's rise to prominence is gradual, beginning after the war with Rome.


Evidence for the Sadducees is more meager and much more difficult to interpret than that for the Pharisees. None of the sources (Josephus, the New Testament, rabbinic literature) were written from a Sadducean point of view; the Sadducees rarely appear alone in them; and they are generally hostile in their treatment of the Sadducees. The sources agree, however, that the Sadducees were a recognized and well‐established group of first‐century Jews. Josephus further notes that while they had limited influence, they were respected within Jewish society. Their origins and history are obscure, though we hear of them as a political party during the Hasmonean rule of John Hyrcanus (134–104 BCE) and continue to hear of them throughout the first century CE until sometime after the war with Rome. Josephus portrays the Sadducees as drawn from the ruling class and therefore not popular with the masses. Several sources suggest some sort of connection between the Sadducees and the priestly establishment, and Acts 5 associates them with the high priest and makes them the dominant group on the Sanhedrin (though Acts 23 envisions the Sanhedrin as more evenly divided). Caution is needed here: the Sadducees cannot be equated with the priesthood and the ruling class. Not all Sadducees were priests and at best only a very small number of the ruling class were Sadducees. In rabbinic literature the Sadducees are identified with the even less well known Boethusians. It is unclear whether these were two distinct groups or whether the rabbis have conflated two sets of opponents. The little we can glean of Sadducean beliefs comports well with the conservative nature of a group drawn from the ruling class and with some connection to the priesthood: they rejected resurrection, the afterlife and judgment—a position connecting them with older Israelite religion and pitting them against newer beliefs. Josephus portrays them as denying fate and the traditions of the Pharisees and accepting no observance “apart from the laws.” This hardly makes them scriptural literalists, and most likely they had their own traditions of interpretation opposed to those of the Pharisees. Certainly early rabbinic sources claim that the Sadducees differ from the Pharisees concerning ritual purity and Sabbath observance. Other beliefs concerning rituals such as those related to the Temple and the Sadducean/Boethusian method of reckoning Pentecost coincide with priestly practices.


Largely due to the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran, the best known group from ancient sources is the Essenes. The identification of the Qumran community with Essenes is not found in the Scrolls; rather, the impressive agreement of the evidence in the scrolls with that of the other key sources for Essenes (the Roman geographer Pliny the Elder, Philo, and Josephus) makes highly probable the identification of the Qumran community as Essenes. Still, discrepancies remain and the portrait that emerges is far from complete. Both Philo and Josephus number the Essenes at more than four thousand and say that the Essene communities were found throughout Palestine. Pliny locates a major settlement of the Essenes on the northwest corner of the Dead Sea, between Jericho and En‐gedi, which all but names the site at Qumran. That site could accommodate about two hundred members at any one time; the majority of Essenes must have lived elsewhere. Both the Scrolls and Josephus seem to provide for two orders of Essenes: celibate men and those who married and had families. It is presumed that Qumran was a celibate community of Essenes and may have served as a center for Essenes from other locations—though the evidence does not rule out other interpretations. The history of the group is only imprecisely known. The Essenes may have originated in the early second century BCE. Even though the Qumran site was destroyed in the war against Rome, because the majority of Essenes lived at other settlements it is not impossible that the group persisted after 70 CE, though evidence to support their survival is hard to find.

Both the Qumran community and the other Essene groups were tightly organized. Those living outside of Qumran offered hospitality to other members, and in general the Essenes studiously avoided contact with outsiders. The penalties were severe for those who violated the rules and purity regulations of the community and for those who denigrated the community in any way. The Essenes were hierarchically organized according to seniority, standing within the community, and “perfection of spirit,” with priests at the top. Admission to the group entailed a graduated process over two to three years, which was carefully regulated; there was also provision for expulsion. Full membership involved some form of communal property (even though there appears to have been some private ownership allowed), as well as communal meals and communal funds. The Essenes rigorously kept the Sabbath. The evidence concerning the attitude of the Essenes toward animal sacrifice and Temple worship is confusing. Possible interpretations include: there were times in the history of the group when they sent offerings to the Temple and times when they did not; or, the Qumran community dissented from the official Temple ritual, whereas the other Essene communities did not. Among their beliefs were theological determinism, present participation in “eternal life” as well as one which extended beyond the grave, and the notion of a final and universal conflagration.

Other Groups.

Philo mentions the Therapeutae, a celibate community of men and women living outside of Alexandria. Their piety and communal practices resemble those of celibate Essenes, with whom there may be some connection. The evidence for scribes in the first century CE is at best sparse and confusing, and the portrait that emerges from the various sources is incoherent. Despite the presentation of the scribes in the New Testament, scribes do not seem to have formed an organization with its own membership. Rather, scribalism was a profession and a class of literate individuals who functioned as personal secretaries and public officials at all levels of Jewish society. Scribes who worked with the ruling class would most likely have been learned in all aspects of Judaism.

There are also first century Jewish groups whose activity seems to have been primarily political during the time leading up to and throughout the First Jewish Revolt. Josephus wrote of the Zealots mainly as a group in Jerusalem from 68–70 CE, who spent most of their energy struggling with other Jewish revolutionary groups until Jerusalem was surrounded, when they united against the Romans and mostly died fighting. Josephus also mentions the Fourth Philosophy, a group similar to the Pharisees except for their belief that only God should be acknowledged as king and ruler. The Fourth Philosophy spawned the Sicarii, who specialized in assassinating Jews who collaborated with the Romans. They may have been motivated in part by eschatological and messianic expectations.

Just as there was no “normative Judaism” in the first century CE, so too the borders of first century Judaism were not impermeable. Several groups attest to the porous nature of first century Jewish identity. Most clearly on the “outside” from all but their own perspective are the Samaritans, yet there are many reasons to view them as among the Judaisms of the age. The Samaritans believed themselves to be the authentic representatives of Mosaic religion. They are characterized by the building of their temple on Mount Gerizim and worship there rather than in Jerusalem, and by limiting themselves to their own version of the Pentateuch, which emphasizes the divine sanctity of Gerizim as the center for Israel's cultic life. Ranging from “inside” to “just outside” from a first century perspective, and yet clearly on the outside from twentieth century Jewish and Christian perspectives are Jewish Christians, a label that encompasses a complex situation and a great variety. Examples include a number of named Jewish Christian groups mentioned in early patristic sources who share their adherence to Jewish beliefs and practices alongside their messianic understanding of Jesus and often a virulent anti‐Pauline strain; the community underlying the gospel of Matthew, who seem to have understood themselves as recently and bitterly separated from the local synagogue because of their messianic beliefs, despite the fact that they were better at practicing their Judaism; the gospel of John may be appealing to Jews who have a secret and incipient belief in Jesus (represented by Nicodemus, the parents of the man born blind, and Joseph of Arimathea), urging them to grow in their understanding and not to be afraid of expulsion from the synagogue or of leaving their Jewish roots behind.

The above Judaisms present only a partial picture of the diversity of the first century. Josephus and Philo are examples of individuals who do not give us a clear sense of what, if any, Jewish group they might represent (despite Josephus's claim to have been a Pharisee from the age of nineteen). Most of the first‐century Jewish writings preserved in the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha are not linked to the above‐named groups, yet they add significantly to the diversity and complexity of the picture. The several apocalypses and the apocalyptic features of other writings add another substantial dimension. There seem to have been a number of small groups that placed an emphasis on baptism, whether for ritual purification, initiation, or both. We have only glimpses of other features of the Judaisms of the first century: possible Jewish‐Gnostic tendencies, peasant social banditry groups, popular messianic movements, prophetic movements and groups which formed around a wide range of charismatic leaders.

Common Elements.

What do these diverse groups share? In part it is what Lester Grabbe has termed “personal Jewish identity”: belief in one God; the concept of being part of the chosen people—Israel; the rejection of images in worship; the centrality of Torah; and the practice of circumcision. But even these characteristics are complex. Torah is a good example. The third part of Jewish canon (the Writings) was not yet closed; in general, different Jews had different ideas about what to include, which text or translation to read, which parts of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings were more authoritative, and how they should be interpreted. Also connecting the various first century Judaisms was the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple was central both within Roman Palestine and in the Diaspora, despite the obvious problem of distance. In Jewish writings the Temple varies from concrete reality to metaphor to idealization. Long after its destruction, the Mishnah discusses the Temple as if it were still standing. Even those who were critical of current Temple practices, such as the Qumran community, did not contemplate permanently abandoning it. There are exceptions, like the Samaritans, who rejected the Jerusalem Temple, or the community of Leontopolis in Egypt, who built another. Yet even for such dissidents, temple cult in some form was central.

See also Anti‐Semitism


Sarah J. Tanzer